Hunting pythons in Florida, for profit and therapy

MIAMI (AFP) – Mr Enrique Galan is seldom happier than when he disappears deep into the Everglades to hunt down Burmese pythons, an invasive species that has been damaging Florida’s wetland ecosystem for decades.

When not working at his job staging cultural events in Miami, the 34-year-old spends his time tracking down the nocturnal reptiles from South-east Asia.

He does so as a professional hunter, hired by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to help control the python population, estimated to be in the tens of thousands.

At night, Mr Galan drives slowly for miles on paved roads and gravel tracks, his torchlight playing on grassy verges and tree roots, and the banks of waterways where alligator eyes occasionally glint.

He charges US$13 (S$18) an hour and an additional fee per python found: US$50 if it is up to four feet (1.2m), and US$25 more for each additional foot.

But on this August night, he has an extra motivation.

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been holding a 10-day python-hunting contest, with 800 people participating. The prize is US$2,500 for whoever finds and kills the most pythons in each of the categories – professional and amateur hunter.

And Mr Galan would love to win that money to celebrate the arrival of Jesus, his newborn baby.

Burmese pythons, originally brought to the United States as pets, have become a threat to the Everglades since humans released them into the wild in the late 1970s.

The snake has no natural predators, and feeds on other reptiles, birds, and mammals such as raccoons and white-tailed deer.

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“They’re an amazing predator,” said Mr Galan in admiration.

Specimens in the Everglades average between six and nine feet long, but finding them at night in the wetland of more than 1.5 million acres (607,000 hectares) takes skill and patience.

Mr Galan has a trained eye, as well as the courage and determination needed for the job. After two unsuccessful nights, he spotted a shadow on the shoulder of Highway 41: he jumped out of his truck and lunged at the animal, a baby Burmese python.